I don’t plot. I don’t outline. I don’t even do character sketches. And the irony with that … I’m a planner with everything else in my life. I’ve never met a project, a trip, a day that I didn’t plan to the last detail. Seriously.
I have objectives for each month, then weekly tasks and every morning, I make my to-do-for-the-day list. Each new project starts life as a shiny Gantt chart. My brain is always two steps ahead, calculating how to go from here to there, anticipating roadblocks and thinking through potential detours.
You’d think my compulsion to plan would lead to careful plotting of stories. Nope.
A story idea will come at me—sometimes it’s a title, sometimes an event, sometimes an object—then bounce around, collecting more details like a dust bunny grabbing at every strand of hair in the living room until it’s fully formed and ready to move out on its own.
The control-freak side of me wants to be okay with the squiggly-squirrel side. Sometimes they play nice, most times they bicker like spoiled kids. But I found a compromise … one that the controlling side sees as an organizational tool, and one that the squiggly side sees as play time.
Say hello to my friend, Mind Mapping.
Mind mapping is a thinking tool that goes with the flow of the thought process rather than forcing those thoughts into a linear order. It’s creative and visual and perfect for brains that have a tendency toward the squirrel story threads. I heard it once described as “the little Swiss-army knife for the brain.” That was all I needed!
There are plenty of mind mapping software options to choose from (some paid, some free, depending on the features you want) or you can freehand with different color markers and a large sheet of paper (or white board). Whatever works best for you.
I prefer software that’s easy to drag and drop and move and tweak. Although I used crayons and poster board for a picture book once and had so much fun!
Here are a couple of pointers that have worked for this non-linear thinker:
The idea behind a mind mapping session is not to detail the story plan but to empty your brain of details for the story. Order doesn’t matter. Whatever comes to mind, whenever it comes to mind, put it down. Link it to other ideas or details as the connections become clear.
At this stage, the items you jot down don’t need to have clear lines to others but they do need to inspire parts of the story. As you start digging a bit deeper into each one, you’ll discover how each relates to the other pieces. And you’ll add additional twigs to each new branch of your map.
Don’t tie yourself to one way of doing your map. Maybe you start with individual words or couple of words. For example, maybe there’s an anecdote between two characters that jumped to mind or a description of an object or place. Put those down as they came to you, don’t try to force them into the one or three word bubbles to match the others. Everything is fair game!
The more the merrier.
When you create an outline for your story, you have one outline. Mind mapping doesn’t have to be just one map per story. You’re not trying to organize your thoughts, you’re releasing them. If one bubble sparks an a-ha moment, give it it’s own map. See where it takes you.
For the novel I’m currently working on (scheduled for release summer 2018), I have several maps. One for the main character, including details about her (physical appearance, job, hobbies, etc) and the people surrounding her; and one for the secrets each character has and how the connect to the other people in the book.
Think of mind mapping as the hot air balloon vision for your story. It takes you out of the forest of details and puts you up high above the treetops, to see the whole of the wooded space and all the cute little story squirrels scampering around in there.
Interestingly enough, I’m a linear writer. I have to start at the beginning and work through to the end of the story. I never fully know the end until I get there. With mind mapping, I get the big picture idea for my story, I have random details and an understanding for how each fits with the others—I have the map to guide me through the forest. I may still veer off a path in pursuit of another squirrel, but I know that to get to the end of my trek, I’ll have to get back on the main path.
If you’re not a plotter, not a linear thinker, give mind mapping a shot. It’s an organic, visual thought process that appeals to right brainers. Most mind mapping software have the ability to turn the visual brainstorming into a linear outline. That’s a bonus if you need to turn in an outline (or expand it into a synopsis) to your agent or editor.
I’d love to hear from pantsers and plotters how you approach the brainstorming process. Are you a linear thinker or a visual thinker? What tools or processes help you capture your ideas?